“Maniac” is an experiment in and of itself. The warping genres, tones, and story structure within creator Patrick Somerville and director Cary Fukunaga’s 10-part limited series make it a story that demands close inspection, while Annie (Emma Stone) and Owen (Jonah Hill) team up for a moving story that helps to justify the time needed to study it.
Is it successful? Yes and no, but more often leaning toward the former. As noted in IndieWire’s spoiler-free review, “Maniac” lacks the finesse to effortlessly convey its deeper meanings, but the onscreen strain is intriguing in its own right. By the end of the series, many of the pieces click into place — just not in the way you might think. The core narrative wraps up, sure, but little conspicuous clues and seemingly offhand stories (that could be forgotten in the swirl of information) earn callbacks, while other oddities aren’t exactly explained, but they do tie back to people, memories, or peculiar moments in such a way to better explain their existence.
Like the messy minds of its characters, “Maniac” is intricate and overlapping. Thoughts bounce around to create odd connections and beautiful collisions, or, as Dr. Mantleray would put it, “an infinite orgy of matter and energy rubbing, bumping, and grinding together.” All of these connections create an enticing tether not only between either end of the story, but between story and audience, as well. To analyze the results takes more than a few questions and a diagnostic printout.
So let’s give it a try. Consider this a proximity test: a crosscheck of the data gleaned that helps everyone render reflections for the final takeaway. Most importantly, just remember: I’m a friend, and this is normal.
Emma Stone and Jonah Hill in “Maniac”
Michele K. Short / Netflix
So… What Happened?
To speak plainly, Owen and Annie conquer their demons. Owen learns to accept who he is and be content with that person, while Annie processes the loss of her sister and moves forward. Back in reality, they complete the drug trial, leave the facility, and go their separate ways. Owen, who’s still worried his brain made the whole thing up, distances himself from Annie for fear of becoming overcommitted to another delusion. Annie, who’s preoccupied with correcting past mistakes, goes to see her father, who tells her she needs and deserves a friend like Owen.
Only then does she go looking for him, discovering her former
dream reflection buddy is stuck in an institution. Owen told the truth at his brother’s trial (though only because the video evidence proved undeniable), and Jed (Billy Magnussen) followed through on his promise to frame Owen for crimes serious enough to get him tossed in an insane asylum. But Annie convinces him what they went through actually happened, that he won’t mess up their friendship, and the reality that matters is within their connection. “You know me,” she says, and recognizing that’s true is what gets Owen into a new set of clothes and out the door. They drive away with plans to head to Salt Lake City, UT, and see where things go from there.
Oh, and as for Dr. Mantleray? He ends up with Dr. Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno) and her bitchin’ car. They’re out of work, but he’s a tad closer to his mother and the talking television set hinted there’s a “personal” project they could help it with. (This odd tease stands out even more when remembering “Maniac” is a limited series, and Season 2 isn’t a guarantee.) More importantly, even though they destroyed the GRTA (computer), they think their work was meaningful. That’s nice. After everything they did, the two deserve a win.
Justin Theroux and Sally Field in “Maniac”
Michele K. Short / Netflix
Did the Trial Work?
When Owen and Annie finish the pharmaceutical trial, Dr. Mantleray greets them and declares, “It’s been a complete success. Congratulations! You are healed.” Of course, this is meant (at least partially) as a joke: Immediately after Mantleray tells Annie she’s all better now, he’s called an “idiot” and his project is declared a “waste” by their boss, a ’50s-era TV set with a deep voice and decent sense of humor.
But… was it a waste? Much of that comes down to what you choose to believe. On the one hand, Owen and Annie are better off than they were before the trial began. They approached their real-world problems in a healthier way post-trial. Annie immediately apologized to the receptionist she blackmailed and returned the money she stole from her dad. She became a better friend to Owen, saving him from a life of doubt and loneliness. Owen, meanwhile, did the right thing in court and tried to do the right thing for his own mental health. Eventually, he’s happy, and seeing the real Owen smile (instead of his many different dream versions) is a breakthrough unto itself.
On the other hand, the final shot is eerily reminiscent of “The Graduate,” and the waning happiness of Ben and Elaine bleeds into the long hold on Owen and Annie. Fukunaga’s take lasts just long enough for their big smiles to fade into something between the ecstasy of escaping and the reality of their unknown future. Owen, after all, isn’t indisputably healed. He knows himself well enough to realize his disorder will still plague his future relationships; it’s why he isolates himself from Annie in the first place. Only after she assures him his unpredictable mood swings won’t be a problem does he agree to run off with her, and much like the rest of their lives, this could be a temporary boon to more permanent, lingering problems.
The best version of “Maniac” balances both beliefs equally. A grounded and realistic takeaway is that these two went through a significant learning experience and came out with a better grip on who they are when it ended. No matter whether the pills worked from a chemical and neurological standpoint is irrelevant, given how they created illusions that served a similar purpose to therapy. Owen and Annie were forced to confront their problems head-on, and as long as they don’t backslide, they may be able to forge a happier future. If viewers want to believe in the kooky powers of Dr. Mantleray’s mad science, they certainly can, but even for a series about fixing the human brain, it isn’t about to tell you how to think.
OK, But What’s With the Hawk?
Of the many oddities within Owen and Annie’s imagination — the “Lord of the Rings”-esque elf world driven by her sister’s love of fantasy movies, Owen’s mullet + Warren Moon jersey combination, the bloody shootout at a fur dealer and in a long, consulate hallway — Owen turning into a hawk is perhaps the make-or-break moment for viewers. It’s when “Maniac” either goes too far or enters into another realm of glorious inventiveness.
Of course, the transformation stems from Owen’s earlier story at family dinner when his brothers remember him taking care of a wounded hawk. They’re mocking him for it, but he clearly loved that bird after nursing it back to health for months. All the brothers cared about was how the hawk affected them (it ate one of their pets), just like all they care about with Owen is whether or not he’ll embarrass the family. So, for Owen to become a hawk in order to enter Annie’s fantasy world, well, that makes as much sense as the rest of the show.
Bonus Tip: Don’t let the Netflix player skip the episode’s end credits. There’s a special audio cue from the first episode on that tips off the hawk’s significance.
Wait, Wait: Jed Did What?!
Ah, yes: The big question teased throughout the season. Up until the end, it seemed like viewers would never get a definitive answer as to why Jed was going to trial, but then the final episode provided clear and disturbing video footage of exactly what went down. Jed peed on his female coworker. He may have done more than that, but given the length of the video and the telling question posed to Owen during trial prep — “Have you ever seen your brother act in act of consensual or non-consensual urination?” — it seems like that’s how he asserted his twisted power.
But What Does It All Mean?
There are dozens of interpretations to take away from “Maniac.” Given the goofy war Dr. Mantleray wages against therapy — he brags in the welcome video his new treatment will “replace old-fashioned talk therapy forever” — one could argue this is passionate argument for the time-honored practice. After all, Mama Mantleray (a divine Sally Field) is clearly the smartest person in the room, at any time. Still others could dismiss the mother/son story as a strictly personal narrative about a sensitive boy overcoming perceived trauma (or at least overcoming his own resentment of his mom).
Those looking strictly at Owen’s journey could find meaning in his quest to be satisfied with himself, rather than looking for a new life around every corner. Others could see an innocent man corrupted by a powerful family. Annie had to work through her own family issues, coming to terms with her role in her sister’s death and how to best communicate with her remaining parent in the present.
But for the bigger themes — a soul’s purpose, the mind’s construction, whether or not happiness can be engineered, and where it even comes from — the best definition the series provides comes right from the start. “Maniac” wants to be as deft in shifting between all its ideas, themes, and tones as Theroux is in balancing the seriousness, humor, and awe within Dr. Mantleray’s opening narration. “There would be no life without collisions of heavenly bodies,” he says, before going “back to our amoeba” and noting how its very creation could be chance or it could be inevitable. He goes on to say how all these “forces of nature” demonstrate “the infinite potential of our connections,” and “this truth also extends to the human heart.”
To Dr. Mantleray, and “Maniac” as a whole, connections are survival. By showing how these two souls find each other through wildly unpredictable circumstances, Somerville and Fukunaga’s series illustrates how happiness — the meaning of life, some say — is derived from significant meeting, bonding, and continued contact. All that “rubbing, bumping, and grinding” doesn’t have to be sexual (it’s clearly not for Annie and Owen), but it does have to be dynamic, and to love someone else you first have to love yourself. These simple ideas careen out of control at times, as the writer and director populate their universe with so many different connections it can feel overly chaotic. That may be the point: to replicate life’s madness before ultimately reminding viewers of the simple truth. Connections matter. They may be all that matter, even when so much else is cluttering up your world.
“Maniac” is streaming now on Netflix.